Games are fantastic social tools. They are a scaffolding for social interaction and a great source of shared experience and enjoyment. Cooperative games give a great opportunity for camaraderie and team-working, and can give a real sense of shared achievement when you manage to accomplish your goals together.
That said, many otherwise-cooperative games have a mechanism that allows for one player (or several players) to be a traitor, working against the team to their own ends. When considering such games, I’m not talking about titles such as The Resistance, which cannot function without a traitor, but rather games in which there is already a challenge for the team to overcome before any betrayal is even considered. In these games, the traitor is an additional feature which exacerbates the situation and creates suspicion and mistrust among the players. This article is by no means comprehensive, but is just based on my experiences with these games and how they deal with the traitor mechanism.
I’m not hugely into lists, so in the coming article my intention is not to rank games that involve traitors, but rather just give quick outlines of a handful of titles that use this mechanism really well.
Shadows Over Camelot
Released in 2005 and designed by Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget, Shadows Over Camelot is a fantastic game that encourages strong, cooperative play.
Theme-wise, the game is set in the time of Arthurian legend. Players each take on the role of one of the knights of the round table, choosing from King Arthur, Sir Galahad, Sir Gawain, Sir Kay, Sir Percival, Sir Palamedes and Sir Tristan of Lyonesse.
Mechanically, the game is a set-collection game, where you want to work together to complete quests by, in most cases, playing poker hands such as straights and full houses. There are other quests that involve the collection of Holy Grail cards and discarding cards to get bring Excalibur ever closer. Whilst all of this is happening, the forces of evil are also milling about causing general unrest, sending picts and saxons to attack Camelot, amassing siege engines at the castle gates, moving Excalibur and the Holy Grail beyond the reach of the Knights and other nefarious deeds.
In terms of the traitor mechanic – which is why we’re here, after all – there is a (rather high) chance that one of the knights is actually a traitor, working against the others for his own purposes. Since players are not able to show each other their cards, it’s possible for the traitor to play poorer cards than he otherwise would, or lie about the contents of his hand. He can also make purposely bad decisions in order to worsen the situation that the knights find themselves in. A good traitor should be able to manipulate the game such that Excalibur or the Grail become unobtainable or the gates of Camelot are overrun with siege engines.
Once the traitor is revealed, he gains a more direct means of interfering with the game, stealing cards from other players and drawing two progression of evil cards, rather than the usual one, and choosing the worst of the effects to inflict upon the knights.
The traitor mechanism is done very well in this game, and I love the extra menace that the player can bring to the game once they are revealed. This is one of the real classics of the cooperative genre and a fantastic example of a game that really uses the traitor mechanism well.
Fantasy Flight’s Battlestar Galactica is another fantastic cooperative game that shares a lot of mechanisms with Shadows Over Camelot.
Battlestar Galactica is based on the reimagined sci-fi series of the same name. In it, you take on the role of a ragtag fleet of human survivors of a genocidal attack by the robotic Cylons. The goal is to work together to protect the fleet and get the human population to Earth, the fabled home of the 13th colony of man.
Mechanically, this is done by using your themed cards and character abilities to react to events, fight off Cylon attacks and remain vigilant in searching for Cylons disguised as humans. This ability to blend in with other players is key to the traitor mechanism of this game and is very similar to the system used in Shadows Over Camelot.
As in Shadows Over Camelot, the traitor begins the game by trying to blend in with the other players, making purposely poor decisions and underplaying where possible. The fact that each player’s contributions to an event are shuffled alongside a couple of cards from another deck means that any sabotage is quite hidden, creating a lot more opportunity for direct sabotage than there is in Shadows Over Camelot. Where the Cylon manages to con their way into a key role, such as President or Admiral, there is even more mayhem to be had, with the opportunity to make very poor decsions pm behalf of the group and waste precious nukes.
When the traitor is revealed, or chooses to reveal herself, their game changes significantly as they are spirited away to the Cylon ship where they can undertake a number of different actions to mess with the colonials such as inciting more crises, activating Cylon ships, stealing cards and giving out unrevealed loyalty cards, further sowing seeds of suspicion. This is another similarity between Battlestar Galactica and Shadows Over Camelot.
The fact that the concept of the Cylon sleeper agent is so deeply embedded into the TV show means that, for any fans of the show playing the game will see the reveal of the traitor as a big event. The theme just comes through so well in this game and the traitor is embedded firmly in this theming.
Betrayal at House on the Hill
In Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica the traitor knows from the start that they are working against the other players. In Betrayal at House on the Hill the traitor only finds out about their status halfway through the game.
The first half of Betrayal at House on the Hill sees the players exploring an old house. As they progress through the building, opening doors and moving between floors, more room tiles are placed and the floor plan expands. In addition to new rooms, players will also discover equipment cards with which to arm their characters, and Omen cards, which have specific effects and cause a ‘haunt roll’.
Once the haunt roll is failed, the haunt begins. This is where the game utterly changes focus from exploration to survival. The traitor is determined from a table in the rulebook which lists a number of different criteria. The nature of the haunt is also determined like this and is chosen from a pool of 50 haunts, each of which follows a typical horror movie plot, such as zombie survival, man-eating plants, teenage werewolves or having bombs strapped to each player.
I’m not the biggest fan of some of the mechanisms used in this game, but I love how the haunt works and how you never quite know how the game is going to go. You also never know who the traitor is going to be, giving a real sense of tension as the table is consulted to see who is turning on the other players. This game is very different to the other two that I have already discussed, as there is little that the traitor can or should do before the reveal to sabotage the party. This approach does have the disadvantage that it takes away a lot of the early-game strategy that the other games possess, but the approach does fit the horror movie theme quite well.
This stealth and hidden movement game has a built in traitor mechanism when the game is played with 5 players.
Specter Ops sees a single player taking on the role of an agent infiltrating an enemy facility and achieving certain objectives. The agent player records all movement in secret on a worksheet, rather than moving their miniature visibly around the board. The other players play as hunters, searching for the agent and trying to stop him from activating his objectives and, if this fails, stopping him from escaping alive afterwards. The agent only becomes visible when he enters the line of sight of a hunter, and he has a nice bag of tricks to help him avoid detection.
Where the traitor mechanism comes in is during larger games. In 5 player games, where there are 4 hunters, one is designated as a traitor who will assist the agent in his mission. The agent knows who the traitor is and my lie about entering their line of sight and about taking damage from their attacks. Lots of unspoken cooperation needs to take place between the agent and the traitor, with the traitor taking up watch position on a major road, which the agent can then cross safely. The agent should also be careful when doing this whilst the other hunters are using their sensors, as the discovery of movement between different quadrants can give away which person is the traitor.
Much like every other game on this list, the traitor’s role changes significantly after he is revealed. At this point, he chooses another agent character and replaces his hunter with this agent, losing his hunter powers, but gaining the agent’s abilities. He then takes on another worksheet and starts moving his character stealthily as a second agent.
I’ve found that this works very well and adds a bit of intrigue to the game. Interestingly, I’ve found that it also combats the ‘alpha gamer’ syndrome that cooperative games can develop, where one player basically takes charge and starts to order the other players around. Where the players no longer have that implicit trust in one another, this effect is at least partially curtailed.